Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS
Mike Murray got back to Mayport Naval Station from Afghanistan eight months ago, but his experiences there haven't faded.
"I haven't had a good night's sleep once since I've gotten home," said the petty officer first class who spent a year in Kabul helping the Afghan air force.
Murray volunteered for the assignment as an individual augmentee, the Navy's term - commonly abbreviated IA - for a sailor sent to serve with the nation's ground forces. The job was fun, he said, but there was the constant sound of rocket-propelled grenades hitting the NATO base where he worked and regular high-pitched explosions. Such things have a far-reaching impact.
"You become numb to it," he said. "You get used to throwing on your body armor, to throwing your flight suit on over your pajamas."
When he came home, he had trouble even driving, the result of leading around two or three dozen convoys through the crowded streets of Kabul.
"The first time I drove by myself [at home], I had to pull over twice because of anxiety," he said. "I would pull up to crowded stoplights, and instinct and urge would make me want to drive around the cars and through the intersection. We never stopped with convoys."
The long-lasting aftershocks of his experiences aren't unusual.
"We're not equipped to go and see that stuff and then come home and drop it," said Marianne Chapman, a mental health counselor who has spent much of her career working with the military in Jacksonville and Miami. "What they need to recognize is they're having a completely normal reaction to an abnormal situation."
That's a message the military has been pushing hard as it fights to preserve the mental health of its warriors. The cost of losing that battle was shown a few weeks ago when a soldier in Iraq who had been sent for counseling grabbed a gun and shot five fellow troops, including a Navy officer working at the mental health clinic there.
The totality of the military, particularly the Army, is struggling with rising rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and issues stemming from traumatic brain injury. It's a situation that has been worsening for years as more soldiers experience more - and more close-quarters - combat.
Studies have shown that a quarter or more of returning troops had some sort of mental health issue, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and depression.
The problem often spikes six months or so after the service member returns, when the initial relief at being home subsides.
To be clear, dealing with combat-related trauma doesn't mean a service member suffers from debilitating, or even visible, symptoms. While some, due to either physical injury or mental trauma, do end up catatonic, suicidal or dangerously violent, the majority deal with less severe issues: trouble sleeping, feelings of anger, impatience, alcohol abuse.
"I cannot imagine anyone escaping combat unscathed, but there are varying degrees," Chapman said.
The situation is worsened for front-line troops and those who return to the war zone multiple times. Army researchers estimate about 60 percent of a typical unit going to Iraq has deployed before.
"All Army leaders recognize at every level that repeated deployments are difficult for our soldiers," said Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, commander of the Army Medical Command.
A different kind of fighter
The situation facing those providing help in Jacksonville comes with an additional twist.
Most of those who return to the area after spending time at war stand apart from the typical fighter who deals with the issues as part of a regular unit. Here, they're often IA's - sailors plucked from their ship or squadron and sent to the front lines.
They're National Guardsmen, deployed as a unit, but split up upon their return. …